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What is web accessibility?

Web accessibility (also known as digital accessibility) is focused on ensuring there are no barriers to serving someone.

It’s easy to think of accessibility as technical requirements for serving people with disabilities (including people who are blind, deaf, or in a wheelchair). Many people consider such technical solutions as including a wheelchair ramp at an entrance with a step or making sure a screen reader can walk someone through a website. But accessibility is much more than technical requirements. And true accessibility not only goes beyond serving people who are often commonly referred to as 'disabled' but really helps improve access for everyone.

Ultimately, accessibility is about supporting people with a wide variety of abilities and ways of interacting with and understanding your services, products, and content.

Accessibility requires organizations to be considerate of their audience’s physical, mental, or cognitive state—from how they think, understand, interact or move, see or hear—and design their products and services so that these diverse needs and behaviours are accommodated.

Online, website accessibility, along with apps and other connected technologies, require an expert mix of design, code, and content best practices.

Continue reading for definitions of commonly used accessibility terms.

a11y

‘a11y’ is a numeronym for the word ‘accessibility’.

A numeronym is a word where a number is used to form an abbreviation.

There are 13 letters in the word ‘accessibility’. Beginning with an ‘a’, followed by 11 letters, then ending with ‘y’, therefore ‘a11y’.

Related:

#a11yTO

#a11yTO (#a11y Toronto)

#a11yTO, or A11y Toronto, is a meetup group and volunteer organization that brings together designers, developers, and other accessibility advocates to discuss best practices and case studies, and educate people new to accessibility on how to get started. Their programs also include a series of conferences, most notably #a11yTO Camp in the spring, and #a11yWeekTO every October.

Related:

a11y

Ableism/Ableist

Ableism, or being ableist, is acting, speaking, or behaving in a discriminatory way towards disabled people or people with accessibility needs.

This discrimination can include explicit verbal discriminatory or derogatory language, and discrimination like deprioritizing or dismissing accessibility needs or accommodations. For instance, using language like “crazy” or “insane” as a descriptor is ableist towards those with mental health conditions.

Related:

Inclusive design a11y AODA ADA

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), is the legislation that defines accessibility standards at the federal level in the United States. ADA is also based on WCAG 2.0 standards. If you’re an organization based in the United States, it’s important to comply with these standards to avoid legal action under ADA or section 508 (defined below).

Related:

WCAG 2.0 / WCAG 2.1 AODA Section 508

Alt tags

Also known as: alt text, alternative text, alternative image descriptions

Alt tags are placed in the code of your website to give images or other visual content descriptions that will be used by screen readers. This information describes the content of the image for those who cannot see it.

These explanations of the image should only be used if a description is necessary to understand the rest of the content on the page. Otherwise, an empty set of alt tags (no description) should be added to indicate an image is decorative, or just for looks, rather than a required part of your content.

Learn more about making images accessible

Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA)

The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) is Ontario’s version of accessibility legislation. Based on requiring compliance with WCAG 2.0, AODA has general compliance requirements that many organizations must meet by January 2021, specifically, government organizations, and all organizations with more than 50 employees operating in Canada.

It is strongly recommended that all organizations in Ontario work towards WCAG 2.0 AA compliance to meet AODA legislation in the future in order to ensure future compliance requirements and simply to improve website user experience for all users.

Related:

WCAG 2.0 / WCAG 2.1 ADA Section 508

Accessible Rich Internet Application (ARIA) labels

ARIA labels, or Accessible Rich Internet Application labels, are a type of code attribute that allows developers to add descriptions and context to the elements on a webpage for users of screen readers.

ARIA labels can be used as labels for text fields, interactive widgets like accordion or slider controls, or as supplementary text for links and buttons.

If you have a number of similar links on a page, such as ‘learn more’ or ‘get started’ you would use an ARIA label to better identify the topic of these links, such as writing “Get started with accessibility today”.

Related:

Automated accessibility checkers Alt tags WCAG 2.0 / WCAG 2.1 AODA ADA

Automated accessibility checkers

Automated accessibility checkers use WCAG accessibility standards to check your site’s code for accessibility issues, like missing alternative image descriptions, missing ARIA labels, or colour contrast issues.

Examples of these kinds of accessibility tools include Lighthouse, AxE, SiteImprove, Firefox Inspect, Microsoft Accessibility Insights, and many others. These tools are focused on code and technical compliance. They do not test for usability, inclusivity, or comprehensive screen reading capabilities.

Using automated accessibility checkers alone to improve your accessibility will not ensure a wonderful user experience. That’s why we developed the Essential Website Audit service.

Related:

Screen readers ARIA Labels Alt tags WCAG 2.0 / WCAG 2.1 AODA ADA

Captions

Captions are text that appear on the screen over a video file in a way that corresponds with the spoken audio and other sounds as they happen throughout the video.

Captions are used so that people who can’t or do not want to listen to the video’s sound can still understand the video’s content as the video plays. Captions are also a requirement for creating accessible video content.

Many online video services offer automated captioning, including live conferencing tools such as Google Meet or Microsoft Teams, and video players like YouTube or Vimeo. However, these computer-automated captions do not often understand people’s names, accents, or other specialized terms or jargon. It is ideal to use a captioning service like Rev to prepare a more accurate file that can be used for both captions and transcripts.

Related:

Transcripts

CVAA (Communications and Video Accessibility Act)

CVAA or, The Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, is American legislation passed in 2010 that governs the accessibility of video and other multimedia content, for online, television, and other distribution channels. For example, for TV shows that have aired on television, they are legally required to have captions when they are streamed online.

Related:

WCAG 2.0 / WCAG 2.1 ADA Section 508

Edge case

The term edge case is used to describe an atypical or less commonly encountered use case or user for a product or service. The traditional approach implies that the edge cases are more difficult to solve and serve fewer people and therefore are to be avoided. The long-held belief is that organizations can serve most of their addressable market without solving these tougher challenges.

As a result of this traditional approach, edge cases would often not be accommodated by a  product or service, making it more difficult or even unusable in these cases.

For example, for a website, an edge case could be considered someone who would exclusively view the site in high contrast mode due to an uncommon vision impairment. However, this kind of consideration would be a common benefit for many users, not just those with a particular kind of vision impairment. Dismissing such a benefit because it may impact only a small percentage of users would be a detriment to the overall product and could require a significant effort to accommodate in the future.

As such, we know now that solving for the more difficult use cases first—particular when they lead to more ways to access content and engage with an organization—leads to much richer products or services that ultimately require less time and resources to capture market share.

Related:

Inclusive design Product strategy Service design Universal design Usability Inclusive

Equality Act

The Equality Act (or EQA) is accessibility legislation passed in the United Kingdom in 2010. This legislation introduced much more comprehensive protections for people with disabilities and their rights when accessing digital products and services.

Most notably, it passed into law the requirement that websites in the United Kingdom must take reasonable steps to provide an equivalent online user experience for those with disabilities. It also makes it illegal to discriminate against those with disabilities in the United Kingdom, under which failure to provide accessibility accommodations is considered one form of discrimination.

Related:

WCAG 2.0 / WCAG 2.1 AODA ADA Section 508

Form elements

Form elements are any button, text box, checkbox or any other part of a form where a user can enter information. These elements need to be accessible not just by clicking or tapping them, but also by navigating to them with the keyboard.

If a certain form element must be responded to by the user, it needs to have an error state as well, where if the information required is invalid or not entered, a message is displayed and a symbol and colour change appears.

Headings

All pages on your website should use headings in the code to differentiate between the sections of content on the page. When coding a page, there should be one h1 (heading level 1) , and then h2s for each section within that. If a heading is needed in a section with an h2, an h3 should be used, and so on. If you skip heading levels, or omit headings entirely, you make it harder for users using screen readers to navigate though and jump between sections on the pages of your site.

Learn more about how headings impact accessibility

Inclusive Design Research Centre (IDRC)

The Inclusive Design Research Centre, or IDRC, is a research organization based out of OCAD University in Toronto. Their work includes innovative research into accessibility, accessibility tools, inclusive design, and evolving and establishing inclusive design processes.

Founded by Jutta Treviranus (a professor at OCAD University) as the Adaptive Technology Resource Centre, IDRC has evolved to focus on inclusive design and a more holistic focus on inclusion in products, services, and spaces.

IDRC’s work spans user research, visual design, development, and user testing, for both new internal innovations and external partners, with a group of employees, volunteers, and advocates that come together to research and design inclusively. All are welcome to participate in this work through the Fluid Project Wiki.

Related:

Inclusive design

Intuitive

If something is intuitive, this means that it is easy to use without a lot of instruction or learning time.

As an example, an intuitive interface or website has a way of navigating the website or product that makes sense to the user without them needing to read help documentation or spend a lot of time looking for what they need to complete a task.

This is accomplished by using standard models for navigation, interaction, and engagement so that users can recognize familiar patterns and do not need to try to figure out a new interaction model.

Related:

Product strategy POUR Usability Continuous improvement

Keyboard navigation

Also known as: keyboard nav, tabbing, tab through

Many users will navigate your site without using a mouse, trackpad, or touch. An alternative interaction method is using keyboard navigation keys like the ‘tab’ key to jump from link to link or through a form.

This is why it is critical to make sure keyboard navigation not only functions correctly on your site, but also has a logical path to move through links and form elements.

To make your site fully accessible for screen reader users, you’ll also need to add a ‘Skip Navigation’ link so that users can go directly to the main content of your site and not continually have the main menu items read aloud to them as they move from page to page.

Learn more about keyboard navigation

Landmarks

Landmarks are snippets of code that—when placed in a web page—make it easier for screen readers to jump from section to section on the page. Pages are usually structured with a main landmark for the primary page content, a ‘Content Info’ landmark for footers, and a navigation landmark for the main menu items.

Additional complementary or region landmarks may be necessary if your site has sections on a page that aren’t part of the main content, or has an atypical way of structuring pages.

Learn more about landmarks

Neurodivergent

Neurodivergent, sometimes also described as neurodiverse, is a term for people who think, perceive, or express themselves in ways that would traditionally be seen as atypical.

These characteristics can involve social, attention, mood, and other factors that differ from neurotypical behaviours. This term is used to recognize the differences that may be present in thinking and learning and was created to identify these differences as not abnormal, just different.

Examples may include perceptions of and reactions to sound, light, crowds, or other stimuli.

Related:

Inclusive design Intersectionality Diversity

POUR—perceivable, operable, understandable, robust

The POUR acronym—perceivable, operable, understandable, robust—is a concept used in accessibility to represent the four key principles used to make something accessible on the web.

Here’s a breakdown of these four principles:

Perceivable
Users can use a range of senses to easily identify content and user interface functionality.

Example: Colour contrast is sufficient for users to easily read text that sits on a background.

Operable
This principle focuses on the functionality of the interface through a range of means; from mouse, to keyboard, to voice.

Example: Keyboard navigation and the tab key allow the user to jump from link to link on the site without getting stuck or confused.

Understandable

This principle focuses on whether the content and features are simple and consistent. This principle’s success factors include a level of content that can be understood by all, and an intuitive, easy-to-use interface.

Example: Content is at a reading level that is not too difficult for the audience to understand (10th grade or below).

Robust

The robust principle is focused on determining if an interface or website meets reasonable technology standards, including functioning across different devices and browsers.

Example:Does the site work in Safari, Chrome, and Firefox?

Related:

WCAG 2.0 / WCAG 2.1 AODA ADA

Screen readers

Screen readers describes software that allows users to listen to the content on a web page and navigate through a website without needing to view the visual content displayed on a screen. Some common examples are JAWS, NVDA, or VoiceOver.

Screen readers enable using a range of keyboard shortcuts or voice commands to allow users to jump from element to element on the page, take shortcuts to the content that matters most to them, and many other text reading and navigation options.

It’s important when you are developing a website to build in functionality like ARIA labels, landmarks, alt tags, and correct heading structures so that users of screen readers can access the content on your website as effectively as those who do not use screen readers.

Related:

CVAA VoiceOver ARIA Labels Alt tags Landmarks WCAG 2.0 / WCAG 2.1 AODA ADA

Section 508

Section 508 is American legislation that mandates all federal entities—and any private corporations that do business with federal agencies—make their digital platforms accessible to people with disabilities. This includes healthcare, legal, financial, and numerous other private sector organizations, in addition to public sector organizations.

Related:

WCAG 2.0 / WCAG 2.1 AODA ADA

Transcripts

Transcripts are text-based versions of audio content that provide a word-for-word account of what is said in a video or audio file.

Transcripts allow people access to content even if they cannot or do not want to listen to audio. Transcripts are typically an accessibility requirement for improving access to audio or video content for people with hearing impairments, but they also serve many people who may be unable to turn on their volume, or may find it easier or faster to read rather than listen to audio.

When working with a video that has audio, it is best to use a service that provides a transcript as well as captions for the video.

Related:

Captions

VoiceOver

VoiceOver is the built-in screen reading technology built into Apple’s operating systems, including macOS and iOS. VoiceOver allows users to have all of the written content in the operating system, app, or web browser read back to them.

This includes allowing users to navigate web pages and software through keyboard commands. VoiceOver also reads out alternative image descriptions, and indicates links and site headings, so that users know where they are in the page structure.

Related:

Screen readers ARIA Labels Alt tags Landmarks WCAG 2.0 / WCAG 2.1

World Wide Web Consortium

W3C, or the World Wide Web Consortium, is a committee that determines the standards that are generally adopted for the Internet and for online content.

These standards include best practices for developers, accessibility standards, and privacy and security guidelines. The W3C develops resources, builds community on the web, and have working groups focused on establishing new standards as the web continues to evolve overtime.

The adoption of W3C standards are realized with support from major browsers such as Safari, Chrome, Firefox, and others, along with the designers, developers, and content creators who deliver standards-based products for these browsers and related platforms.

For details on web accessibility standards, you would reference the W3C’s WCAG, or Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.

Related:

WCAG 2.0 / WCAG 2.1

World Wide Web Foundation or W3F

The World Wide Web Foundation, or W3F, is a non-profit organization with a focus on maintaining an open and free internet. With a range of international initiatives, the organization has worked towards increased digital equality, affordable internet, and more responsible web-related policies.

As an offshoot of the W3C, W3F continues to progress digital inclusion initiatives globally through its programs and advocacy.

One of the W3F’s, core initiatives, the Contract for the Web, encourages organizations to sign on to a more ethical and equitable approach to the web. Say Yeah has signed the Contract for the Web as one of the pledges we have taken towards more open and inclusive agency practices and being intentional about supporting the communities we serve.

More about our supplier diversity and community initiatives

Related:

Inclusive design W3C

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0/2.1 (WCAG 2.0 / WCAG 2.1)

WCAG 2.0 / WCAG 2.1 represent the latest versions of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. These are the standards that the majority of national and sub-national (provincial, state, etc) legislation is based on, including ADA in the United States, and AODA in Ontario Canada.

WCAG standards include guidelines for content, code, and technical guidelines for how colour, interactivity, and more is handled on a website.

All organizations should be striving for a WCAG 2.0 AA rating for their website in order to meet general accessibility guidelines. A, AA, and AAA ratings define the measure of adherence to the standards presented by the WCAG guidelines.

Related:

AODA ADA Section 508